Michael Harper (mharper@mtsac.edu)

Mount San Antonio College

Southeastern Medieval Association, October 2006

BABEL Panel: Premodern to Modern Humanisms

The Human Strain: Human as Pathogen

My comments today are the products of a recent fortuitous collision between my teaching and my research. Until this happy accident, I fretted about how I would approach today’s task: a brief but coherent commentary on the state of the human—a daunting challenge, to be sure. My moment of conference kismet evolved in the following manner.

Since early in my teaching career, I have had a routine that I perform with my students wherein, during my opening lecture, I ask them the following question: “What is a bigger crisis in education today, ignorance or apathy?” As students look around the room, some waiting for a brave soul to pipe up with the "right" answer, some writing the question down in the event that it appears on the final, I proffer the only possible response, “You don’t know and you don’t care.” Students' initial reaction to my feeble icebreaker is timid, but the routine soon becomes a sort of running gag that we refer to throughout the long semester as a brief respite from the clash between challenging material and short attention spans. Recently, during a particularly taxing class session concerned with Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," I posed the question, again answering as soon as it was asked, in the hope it might wake everyone up enough to get the group to the end of the lecture. However, my trusty chestnut backfired and the dearth of any sort of response (and the crescendo of crickets) had me believing the inevitable answer much more than I normally do. Ignorance and apathy—the pernicious afflictions of the classroom--had reared their heads much earlier in the semester and with greater force than ever before. The class session ended a bit early that day and I gloomily made my way back to my office looking for something to transform my dark mood. Ensconced safely in my office, I began reading through the work of the late comedian Bill Hicks, a thinker whose work informs my own research and writing, and happened upon the following routine.

During a 1993 routine at the Laff Stop in Austin, TX, Hicks began riffing in front of his audience, berating them for their self-satisfied late 20th-century Yuppie existence with the following assertion:

“People suck and that’s my contention. I can prove it on scratch paper…Give me an Etch-a-Sketch, I’ll do it in three minutes to prove the fact; I’ll show my work, case closed. I’m tired of all of this backslapping, ain’t humanity neat bullshit. We’re a virus with shoes, OK? That’s all we are.”

People suck? We’re nothing more than a virus with shoes? Hicks’ wicked assessment, emerging from his utter frustration with the complacent culture of which he was both citizen and critic, did little to lift my spirits at the time, yet I couldn't quite rid my mind of his harsh taxonomy.

I realize that my dual anecdotes--one of my own pedagogical frustration, one of the frustration of one of America's sharpest wits—don’t really seem like typical academic conference fodder, especially on a panel designed to celebrate the humanities. However, both are indicative of a conflict at the heart of our discipline. Considering the context in which Hicks operated as both comic and social critic, his assertion, for all of its vitriol might best be considered within an ironic framework. In fact, Hicks' comments really are a sly invocation to embrace and exploit the best within us. According to Hicks (as evidenced in much of his other material) our human qualities—both the ideal and the flawed--are the only things that will save us in the long run. Still, his notion of humanity as virus, at once comic, caustic and provocative allows us to think through the challenges we face in both our profession and in the world beyond the classroom. Following Hicks' line of reasoning, it might then be said that we are at the mercy of our own humanity--a force that both elevates and afflicts. It is how we choose to use that humanity that determines where we fit in the cosmology proposed by Hicks; he's either laughing at us or with us.
Part of the conflict of which I speak, evidenced in my own classroom experiences, is harder to draw a bead on, but I suspect it might be related to the familiar challenge we all face in trying to get students to make connections between the course material and their own lives.

Here too, the viral metaphor proves useful. On my own campus, there exists a complex history of committees and programs designed to address the very real problem of this disconnect by considering learning styles, diverse student populations and the like. And, although the acronyms and faces attached to these programs change, very little emerges in the way of real answers to the nagging questions that the problem engenders. The ignorance and apathy I jokingly refer to with my students is a very real problem in our lives as teachers, insinuating themselves, virus-like into our daily interactions with students. In The Opening of the American Mind, Lawrence W. Levine offers what might be a useful first step in understanding such pathology when he suggests that, "…too many Americans currently seem to be engaged in another one of our periodic attempts to escape history by detaching the present from the historical process." It is this detachment from history and its related symptoms that engenders many of the challenges that we face on a daily basis whether we are leading a discussion of Hamlet before a group of college sophomores or trying to make sense of the front pages.

Again, as we begin untying this curious knot, Bill Hicks, whose wisdom usually came with a two-drink minimum, resonates: "we're a virus with shoes." The metaphor of humanity as viral agent, as pathogen, pinpoints the conflict and complacency addressed above, invoking a host of questions, conflicts and offering even further conceptual frames in which we might think about the business of our academic lives.

Pathogen, a word most often associated with the cause of disease, might help us to contextualize the humanities and their equally powerful opponents: as causes of dis-ease, of unrest, of resistance. Virus-like, the humanities influence virtually every part of life. However, humanistic pathogens do not submit to wholesale domestication.  Even as they resist, they derive from the bodies that contain them--specific pathogens develop within and against specific organisms. We might seek to assess the dynamics of ‘American’ pathogens--how they underwrite the cultural, political and aesthetic evolution of the U.S. body politic. Humanistic viral organisms come in different shapes and sizes, so a diagnostic survey of 20th century human contagions includes a variety of textual items. My metaphor firmly in mind, I set out to look for confirmation of my critical suspicions.

My quest was a short one. Just a few days after what my students and I now refer to as "the day of the crickets," on a wall of the building in which I teach (itself a veritable monument to ignorance and apathy, but such matters are for another panel), I spotted a flyer posted by the Catholic Club on campus announcing an upcoming club event entitled, "Something about Mary?" Conflating deep human questions (posed in a somewhat haphazard fashion) about a key figure of Christian mythology with one of the best sight gags in cinematic history, the circular's curious juxtapositions offer a glimpse of the viral conflict between real and ideal values at the heart of my musings here. The last bit of advice to "bring your bibles (any brand)" further illustrates this curious cultural affliction and the symptoms indicating it. Not only does it betray the schisms that run rampant in Christianity today, but also indicates how organized religion, like much of the rest of society has been branded and commodified. A recent Time magazine cover story posed the following question: Does God want you to be rich? The story inside the magazine doesn't arrive at any definite answers, but it does delve into what is disturbingly termed, "the Gospel of Wealth." Still, the notion of bible brands leaves me wondering whether a "Good Book" by Prada might offer greater proximity to God's word than one purchased at Wal Mart.

The above example, as innocuous as it is funny, might be compared to a more significant publicity campaign. Consider recent inflammatory comments made by Pope Benedict XVI, who in a lecture on faith, reason and the origins of holy war, included the following quote from a 14th-century Byzantine Emperor: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." As Vatican damage control teams have pointed out since the worldwide outcry at the Pope's comments, much of the controversy may have been avoided had the Pope clearly indicated that his use of the above passage was not meant to indicate his assent, but rather was being used as a means of illustrating a larger point. Still, one wonders what would prompt the Pontiff's carelessness in his choice of rhetoric given the embattled world in which we find ourselves. The Catholic Club of Mount San Antonio College, we can forgive; the Holy Father--a veritable virus in red shoes--should find better editors.

There is, however, a more promising and productive side to the human pathogen. It is most readily apprehended in those points in time when we refuse to be afflicted by our own viral agents, when these agents instead become the source for human agency. Such agency moves beyond mere acceptance of the human condition as "the best of all possible worlds," instead seeking a deeper understanding of it and the possibilities it offers in the face of its limitations and imperfections.

An example of this alternative might be found (next to the bibles at Wal Mart) in Thomas L. Friedman's, The World is Flat. Friedman's hefty bestseller (now in "Version 2.0") assesses what he terms a "flattening" of the globe, a phenomenon that is gradually eradicating a large part of the old middle class and creating what he terms "the new middle." The citizens of this new order (young and old) are filling the classrooms of America. According to Friedman, in order to flourish in the flat world, Americans must supplement any technical and scientific knowledge with abilities that are "high concept" and "high touch": "High concept involves the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative and to come up with inventions that the world didn't know it was missing. High touch involves the capacity to empathize, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in oneself and to elicit in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning" (308).

As a means of illustrating his advice, Friedman offers innovations made by the Georgia Institute of Technology, which in a number of ways shows how American education must adapt in order to better serve the denizens of the "new middle." Georgia Tech's efforts to foster the human side of technology include things like virtual compulsory membership in one of the school's many musical groups, encouragement of extracurricular pursuits like filmmaking and painting as well as a curriculum that mandates that students combine their technological education with courses that connect such knowledge to the larger world. According to Friedman, this infrastructure will prevent the "geeks from inheriting the Earth."

As is clear from the above brief sketch, it is possible that rather than accepting the inevitable fallibility of our existence, we perhaps can move towards a greater understanding of it, changing to attend to the imperatives it presents. In doing so, we can learn to navigate it with a greater, more focused sense of purpose.  In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez beautifully characterizes this urgency when he writes, "human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves." It is our curious affliction, our outrageous fortune, to explore and fulfill this obligation.